Used to Be

At first, that innocent question of people, so light on their lips, it would stab as sharp as the gutting knife her mother had used to disembowel fish, pushed between the white bones of her ribs. If they were muttering these words with a slight smile on their lips, better yet, a howling toddler on their hips, pacifying them with sways and swaggers, the knife would slice the soft meat of her lungs, slowly down to her own guts.

By now, she enjoys saying, with unmoved features, “I used to” and watch their faces split and crumble, watch them as they try to gather up the shambles and hurry away with too many words. Now she hoped people would ask. She bullied people into asking. Just for the fun of it.

I used to. I used to be a mother. I used to be a wife. I used to be a daughter. But with 37 you’re not an orphan anymore. You’re just a widow who was never married and the mother of a dead child. There are no terms for these things.

Now, biting into the buttered edge of her croissant, Anna tries to picture Paul’s eyes, paints bright Greek beaches of blue and green, with specks of shallow sun, the smooth crow’s feet of his smile as he said, “You know, baby doll, the croissant, it was invented as propaganda by the Turks to invade Christian culture. A crescent moon.” He loved to tell lies like this. Baby doll, that’s what he’d called her. He said, for the forever to come, he’d always call her baby doll. Another lie.  

Smelling his aftershave on other men, in a crowded elevator or on a bleached street corner, the scent a shadow of a long-gone man – that’s another stab. Sometimes she manages to melt into it, to melt into a smile. More often than that she has to stop in her tracks, because she’s afraid she might scatter and spill if she moved on.

If you move on, from a dead lover – unwed husband, for lack of a better term – worse, from a dead child – moving on meaning, if once in a while you forgot and smiled – you might as well have killed them.

It didn’t help that, although she used to spend quiet minutes in bed or at traffic lights, tasting, relishing, turning over the idea that Polly, with her hay-colored hair (which for some reason always smelled of hay) with her dreams of discovering the vast nothing and faraway lands of outer space, that Polly was this perfect flesh and blood and mind thing that she and Paul had made. Despite all that puzzled pride, it didn’t help that she’s had days – laundry filled days – when she wished she could just quit and go back to France where she had spent the summer after graduation sitting in smoky Parisian cafés and copying any drifts in her head down onto the leather-bound moleskin, running through night-time, carnival-lit alleys, chanting behind fugitive friends, drunk on cheap, sweet red wine, finally daring to kiss Camille, finally daring to let her fingertips float over the powder-white skin of her hips, finally daring to pull her down onto the fabric-softened sheets whose scent summoned never-had memories of meadows in full blue and yellow bloom. It didn’t help that, however much she adored Paul and Polly when they were still full of breath, she sometimes daydreamed to be free, to be with Camille between those sheets. Without baby puke and play dates.

The women in her family always got what they wished for, and no matter how bad it was, they made do with it. One late summer day, her mother, cutting prunes into perfect halves and freeing them from their velvety wood core, laying the first in ripples on top of dough the texture of baby skin, piling the latter into a lacquered clay dish, her mother – as if revealing a secret passion – had whispered, “Don’t tell, Anna, darling” she said and wiped the knife against her apron, “but if only I’d get cancer.” She bit her lip to keep it from smiling. “Don’t tell, but I’d travel.”

And promptly two months later, carving orange pumpkin flesh into slices to be roasted with rosemary and thyme, now with a lump in the pit of her stomach, she announced that she had booked her tickets. Mongolia. And if she made it, then Nepal.

Similarly, as a little girl, her grandma had wanted some disaster – any disaster – to happen, just so she wouldn’t have to live a dull life in this dull town along the dull Danube, working in her daddy’s dull fruit shop. Of course, it would be stretching things to subscribe WWII to the whims of a 16 year old Slovak girl, and by all means, the disaster she had had in mind – unspecific though it was – didn’t involve her parents being shot on the village square, fleeing barefoot through winter fields, or being raped by German officers, but it did get her out of dull old Báč, it did bring her to exciting New York, where she, maybe with a twinge of sarcasm, opened a – guess – fruit shop.

Washing another bite down with a sip of richly roasted, creamy coffee, Anna thinks she ought to warn Polly about this curse in the family line. Forbid that she wills man-eating aliens into being, brings about human extinction.

By now, she is used to the prickly needle that is remembering she’s dead. The coffee is warm and spicy on her tongue. Anna, because she is – was? – her mother’s daughter, her grandma’s Anička, she took the doom she had coveted and made the best of it. She even bought a moleskin. And for what it’s worth, Paul’s aftershave is a lot less popular in Paris’ rues and ruelles.

 Yesterday, she rung Camille’s doorbell. Hadn’t even called her first. Not that she hoped for anything. Well, for something, for sure, but she tried to keep these hopes small enough so they couldn’t hurt her when they shattered. On the way to the address she had googled, through the same narrow streets she had dashed through in her twenties, a pale, unbaked croissant of a moon rose in the still-bright, not-yet-dark sky. She didn’t even think Camille would recognize her, but recognize her she did. Exclaimed her name as soon as she opened the door. Same blond fire hair, same rosy lips, same cool pools for eyes. But a pillow-skinned, siren-voiced toddler on her hips. Of course, Camille is a mother now, and a wife. And probably still a daughter.

As if to balance out the initial silence, Camille, with too many words and too many gestures beckoned Anna to come in, to please sit down and talk with her, to please stay for a drink, to please excuse the mess and the smell, and her life. Anna picked up a baby food stained milk cloth, a baby spit soaked plush rabbit, and a baby teeth imprinted remote control to make just enough space on the couch to sit on. And Camille, cheery and stressed, rocking her body up and down to pacify the baby, asked, “Do you have any children?”

© Deva Mari